Sunday, June 30, 2013

Lydia Wardwell Perkins Quaker Newbury, Ma

My Article From the Newburyport News:

While the horrors of the Salem witch hysteria are widely known, some years before a less infamous trepidation, the Quaker persecutions, swept the colony during “one of the darkest blots in time.” Several Quakers seeking religious liberty in the Massachusetts Bay Colony suffered torture, and even the scaffold, at the hands of the Puritans. Absence from local parish services typically resulted in a summons, the consequences of which included heavy fines, whippings, or banishment. One Quakeress, Lydia (née Perkins) Wardwell made a stark declaration of protest in response to her summons, appearing skyclad in Newbury as a "sign" of the spiritual nakedness of her persecutors.

Yes, it’s true; Newbury can boast of its very own Lady Godiva. Unfortunately, she could not pull off her impromptu burlesque show in a house of worship without getting the strap. Though most historians question her sanity, Lydia’s motives for disrobing resembled the signs acted out by Hebrew prophets, a doctrine taken very seriously by both the Puritans and the Quakers. Her bold act was no doubt driven by the abuse and torture inflicted upon her family and friends by the Puritans.

Lydia's husband, Eliakim Wardwell of Hampton, N.H., was repeatedly harassed, bullied, and stripped of his assets because of his Quaker faith. He endured the stocks on more than one occasion, and records show that on April 8, 1662 , he was fined for his absence from church.  In addition to these offences, the Wardwell home was also the scene of a conflict while the couple harbored Wenlock Christison, a notable Quaker who was jailed in Boston with Mary Dyer and William Leddra in 1661. Though he escaped the scaffold, Christison was banished from the Mass. Bay Colony.

No doubt he was on the colony’s ten-most-wanted list, and Hampton’s Rev. Seaborn Cotton felt it his duty to “keep the wolves from his sheep.” Cotton, with “truncheon in hand, led a party of order-loving citizens” to the house of Wardwell, seized Christison, and shuffled him off to jail. Christison moved to safer territory in 1665, eventually settling in Talbot County, Maryland. He was elected to the lower house of the Maryland General Assembly and later inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s hero in “John Endicott,” one of three dramatic poems in a collection called “New England Tragedies.”
As Cotton confiscated lands from the Wardwell estate and bankrupted them with heavy fines for non-attendance of Sabbath services, Lydia managed to muster strength, a true testimony to her faith. She witnessed the heinous punishments inflicted by the courts, who viewed Quakers as “dangerous social outlaws.” Several of her friends were hanged or tortured:  their ears severed, and their tongues and body parts bored and branded with hot irons. Those sentenced to jail were often denied food and water.
Lydia was present in Dover, N.H. when three women who had refused to attend church were stripped naked to the waist, tied to a cart, and, though the weather was "bitter cold" that day, paraded around several local towns.   Eliakim Wardwell did not shy away from verbalizing his two cents on the matter. After calling the reverend a brute, back in stocks he went.

While the public flogging was administered, the Rev. Mr. Rayner "stood and looked and laughed at it.”
Lydia was also pursued by the church to answer for her absence from communion. By the time she was summoned for “separating from the church and teaching false doctrine” (Newbury Records), she well understood her fate with church elders. But surely her exhibitionist act was barely imaginable to the pious Puritan elite. She, being “a chaste and tender woman of exemplary modesty,” must have jolted quite a reaction from the locals. One account notes that the church meeting was so disrupted they could not reconvene nor assemble order. On the records of the court at Salem (Quarterly Sessions Court for Essex County), her sentence for the outburst was recorded as follows:

May 5th, 1663. Lydia Wardwell on her presentment for coming naked into Newbury meeting house. The sentence of the court is, that she shall be severely whipt and pay the costs and fees to the marshall of Hampton for bringing her. Costs, ten shillings, fees two shillings and sixpence.
After the session, Lydia was lugged off by Ipswich lawmen and taken to a tavern, the Joseph Baker House. “Amid a large circle of men and boys,” she was tied to a rough post and "lashed to the satisfaction of the crowd of onlookers" (Ipswich Chronicle Report).  One can only imagine the scene of pathetic prigs sipping ale and leering pitilessly while the constables who whipped her “tore her bosom as she writhed.”

To dodge the fussbudget herds and avoid further abuse, the Wardwells moved to Shrewsbury, N.J. after Lydia’s shocking protest. Eliakim became one of the first Quaker ministers in the town. Perhaps the family rested some satisfaction on the fact that the judgment of Heaven would fall upon their persecutors (a belief shared by the Puritans). It is bemusing to think that the Puritans, who left Mother England to escape similar persecution, would exact such brutal tactics of torment on the pacifistic Quakers.

Even more of a mystery is the whereabouts of Lydia’s petticoat. According to the story, she was wrapped in cloth and shuffled off to Hampton very abruptly. Her garments were left for safekeeping with fellow friend of the light Gov. John Easton, who perhaps stood outside to cheer his prophetess on. Though her petticoat may never be found, Lydia Wardell certainly taught us that the naked truth is always better than a well-dressed lie.


  1. Super post! Early Quakers loved street theater - breaking bottles in church to demonstrate how God would break sinners, or painting their faces black in morning for the Puritans' coming damnation. Lydia was demonstrating the Puritans' 'spiritual nakedness,' ie their hypocrisy or ignorance in persecuting the Quakers, when the Puritans' own deeds damned them.

  2. Thanks John it seems there is a "thread" of persecutions surrounding these families!

  3. Excellent account, very well-detailed, and a closing line that's going to make me envious every time I try to finish one of my own columns, no matter what the subject: "naked truth... well-dressed lie." Can't top that! -- Jack Garvey

  4. How sad that their ugly ignorance was so evident in their horrible deeds,one can almost feel the pain through the written accounts.

  5. Lydia and Elkiakim are my Great Grandparents. She must have been a very strong woman and this story hellps to give understanding to the story of her beating and the horriable hanging death, still to come to their son Samuel. But even the elapse of over 400 years does not diminish the injustice, cruelty, and heartbreak of it all. But it makes me proud that I came from there loins. There line is long and there children many. Rest in peace my dear grandparents. <3

    1. I believe the Samuel Wardwell who was hanged as a witch in 1692 was the brother-in-law of Lydia Perkins Wardwell. Samuel(1643-1692) and Eliakim(1634-1710) were brothers, sons of Thomas Wardwell and Elizabeth Woodruff Wardwell.

    2. Yes, Samuel was Eliakim’s younger brother. Eliakim & Lydia had already moved & settled in Shrewsbury, NJ by 1668.